There’s been so much talk about how conservative foreign policy’s moral credibility has been demolished under President Bush. Maybe. But what of liberal credibility? In the 1990s, amid all of the debates about Haiti, Somalia, Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the broad outline of the debate had conservatives advocating a narrower definition of the national interest while liberals argued — and I often agreed with them — for a more expansive one that included a heavy dose of moralism. Finally, liberals seemed to have shaken off the Vietnam syndrome and embraced an overly optimistic but benign foreign policy of nation-building and do-goodery.
Conservatives are at least still arguing about the national interest — but they’re also the ones touting the moral imperative of preventing genocide and even the need for nation-building. Where is the principle in the hash of liberal foreign policy today? How does liberalism recover? If you can justify causing genocide in order to end a nation-building exercise that — unlike similar efforts elsewhere — is fundamentally linked to our national interest, then how can you ever return to arguing that we should get into the nation-building and genocide-stopping business when it’s explicitly not in our interest?
These aren’t difficult questions to answer; the commitment to stop genocide depends on the practical capacity to stop it, and in Iraq we’ve demonstrated nothing but a capacity to significantly increase civil strife, such that, even after four years, commentators as distinguished as Jonah Goldberg argue that the country will descend into internecine slaughter minutes after American troops leave. The basic principle isn’t complicated, either; Michael Walzer developed it quite ably in Just and Unjust Wars, noting that the moral is practical, and that the absence of a practical capacity to conduct out a war of moral purpose makes military action unjust.
While it’s possible that Jonah is simply too dim to anticipate these objections, I think that Ezra’s motivation rubric is the most illuminating perspective that one can take. In short, trying to divine either truth value or partisan positioning from this piece or Kristol WaPo op-ed is fruitless, because we aren’t the intended audience. Jonah isn’t trying to make an argument that anyone who disagrees with him will be convinced by, and he feels no need whatsoever to make plausible empirical claims. Rather, he’s helping to construct a narrative (lousy flip-flopping liberals caused the Iraqi genocide) that will be useful as a partisan talking point five or ten years down the road, and that will help ensure his own position within the conservative pundit hierarchy.
At the former purpose he may succeed. At the latter, I’d advise him not to bother; if merit and ability had anything to do with position in the conservative punditocracy, no one would know the name Jonah Goldberg.